Maryland’s highest court has ordered new trials for two men imprisoned for the brutal stabbing death of a 64-year-old woman in her Eastern Shore farmhouse 33 years ago.
David Faulkner, 55, and Jonathan Smith Sr., 50, had been convicted in 2001 of murdering Adeline Curry Wilford in Talbot County and sentenced to life in prison. The Maryland Court of Appeals threw out their convictions Monday, finding that new evidence implicates a different man altogether and discredits a key state witness.
“We are convinced that new trials are warranted in light of the newly discovered evidence,” Court of Appeals Judge Jonathan Biran wrote in the opinion. “We do not order the granting of these writs of actual innocence lightly. Nor do we predict the outcome of Smith’s and Faulkner’s new trials, should the State elect to retry them."
Faulkner and Smith remain locked up in state prisons. Faulkner’s attorneys were trying to reach him late Monday with news of the ruling, but access to prisoners is limited because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“David, if you’re reading this now, know that this is your victory and your reward for the strength with which you fought this case over the years,” said John Chesley, an attorney in D.C. who represents Faulkner. “We look forward to seeing you at home with your family.”
Smith’s attorney, Susan Friedmanm, was able to reach him.
“He felt relieved, vindicated. And, you know, he’s hoping for the day that this is all over," Friedman said. “Mr. Smith has spent the last two decades trying to prove his innocence."
The court’s ruling does not set the men free, but grants them a new trial. The special prosecutor in the case, Joseph Michael, a deputy state’s attorney in Washington County, noted both men remain charged with murdering Wilford. Michael declined to comment or say if prosecutors intend to retry Faulkner and Smith.
In January 1987, police found Wilford stabbed to death with a butcher knife in the kitchen of her farmhouse just outside Easton. Her house was ransacked. Investigators noticed defensive wounds on her hands and arms; she had struggled to fend off her killer.
Police found a window propped open in the utility room of her home and a palm print on the window. They suspected the killer climbed in to burglarize the home while Wilford was out. But the killer was caught by surprise when she returned home from a trip to the bank.
The police, however, were unable to match the palm print and the case went cold for four years.
Between 1991 and 1992, a confidential informant told police that his friend had admitted to burglarizing Wilford’s home and stabbing her to death along with an accomplice.
In their written opinion Monday, judges named the friend and his alleged accomplice. The Sun is not naming either man because they have not been charged and could not be reached for comment.
Maryland State Police “did not attempt to determine in 1991-92 whether the palm prints left at the scene of the crime matched the palm prints of either suspect,” wrote Biran, the judge.
"The case went cold again,” he noted.
In January 2000, Wilford’s son urged police to reopen the case. They interviewed the late Beverly Haddaway who told police she saw three men — one of them her nephew — walk bloodied out of a cornfield near Wilford’s home around the time of the murder.
The three men — Smith, her nephew; Faulkner and Ray Andrews — were charged with the murder, though the palm print did not match any of them. Andrews pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served a 10 year prison sentence.
Haddaway testified against Smith and Faulkner at trial. Both men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Their appeals were denied.
By 2013, they had new lawyers who petitioned the courts to run the palm print through Maryland’s print database.
When a state police fingerprint expert ran the suspected burglar’s palm print, he discovered it belonged to another man not charged in the crime, the judge wrote.
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In addition, the defense team discovered recorded conversations between Haddaway and police in which she demanded drug charges be dismissed against her grandson in exchange for her testimony against Smith and Faulkner. She also threatened “to reveal to jurors that she had been diagnosed with ‘an extensive emotional and psychological problem,’" the judge wrote.
Smith and Faulkner appealed on grounds that they deserve a new trial in light of the exculpatory evidence of the palm print match and the compromising calls between police and Haddaway. Lower courts denied their appeals, finding fault with the alternative explanation of the murder from the confidential information.
“The circuit court lost sight of the forest for the trees,” Biran wrote.
State records list Smith as an inmate at the Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The records list Faulkner as serving his time at the Jessup Correctional Institution.
Baltimore prosecutors also have had to make decisions on whether to retry men after their convictions have been vacated. At least nine murder convictions have been overturned in Baltimore in recent years with prosecutors deciding not to try the men again.
The nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in D.C. and the Innocence Project in New York worked to overturn their convictions. The D.C. office has overturned a series of wrongful murder convictions in recent years.
In November, the nonprofit partnered with Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to exonerate three innocent men imprisoned for the notorious 1983 murder of a junior high school student over a Georgetown basketball jacket.